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The Wanderings, Tales of the AT Part 3: Always Talk to Strangers

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written. I last wrote in Maine and I am now in Massachusetts. Since my last update, I’ve hiked through all the parts which people claim are the hardest and also the most beautiful, which sounds discouraging to most south-bounders but I’m excited nonetheless to reach the southern parts of the trail where I’ve never hiked before.

I, of course, loved the Whites. I’ve always been impressed with the ruggedness and exposure of the presidential range but on this trip, I enjoyed my time in southern Maine much more. I think this is because the mountains of southern Maine were new to me and much more difficult than expected, which was a welcome surprise. The Whites have always gotten the attention they deserve, but the ridges of the Bigelows and Saddleback ranges are far more underrated. Also, the culture in that small corner of New England is one of being perfectly fine with being left alone and ignored compared to New Hampshire’s glamorous popularity among the Ivy League elites and high rollers of the Northeast’s cities. So far, if there was one place on the trail I could see myself moving to, it would be Maine.

And then, of course, there is Mahoosuc Notch, the “hardest and longest mile of the AT.” Many hikers fear and dread this 1.1-mile boulder field, but I couldn’t wait to see what it was really like. I had a blast in there; it was like a playground for big kids. As a caver, I had no trouble traversing the section and crawling under rocks with a full pack on, but a couple of my wider-girthed hiking partners had a little trouble squeezing through the cracks. I was lucky to be accompanied by two of my closest trail friends, as I had people to throw snowballs at when we reached the spots that were so cold they still had snow. Being the Vermonter, I, of course, won the snowball fight which ended with a peace treaty once I had shoved some ice down Gringo’s pants when he was stuck in a tight crack (a cheap shot but it was time to go nuclear).

Once we left Maine and entered New Hampshire we saw an exponential increase in the number of people, which I didn’t mind so much as it gave ample opportunity to acquire free food through a process called yoging, which is when you beg for food from picnicking day hikers like Yogi Bear did. I am a master at this. In general, I am extremely good at getting free stuff. This causes a lot of jealousy among the other hikers as they simply do not understand how I can so quickly acquire these delicious things. I was given a giant chocolate cupcake on Mt. Washington, fed a scallop dinner on Mt. Greylock—my bar tab gets picked up by a new stranger in almost every town. The list goes on. For a while, even I didn’t know how I was doing it but then I started observing my fellow hikers and I realized what it is. I talk to almost every stranger I meet without ever expecting anything to come of it. People love it when you are nice just for the sake of being nice. Most people I talk to are just happy to hear about the trail, and every once in a while they want to hear more so they invite me for a drink. I genuinely enjoy talking to people from different backgrounds who have different relationships with the trail and the landscape they are in and this often results in some spontaneous trail magic. This is why my number one piece of travel advice is this: always talk to strangers.

When we left the Whites, we left behind intense landscapes of rocky ridges and entered the pleasantly bucolic rolling hills of the Connecticut River Valley between Vermont and New Hampshire. This was a part of Vermont I hadn’t really hiked through and I was enchanted by the completely different atmosphere. This part of the trail is taking hikers between two ranges, the Greens and the Whites, so it has no prominent features of its own but it traverses a landscape that was once entirely occupied by agriculture. The trail here follows old town roads and rock walls that once delineated fields of sheep and cows. While walking this short stretch of trail I often imagined what it must have looked like. On one old road in particular which was lined with a stone wall on each side with 100-plus-year-old sugar maples along those, I imagined some of the first through hikers dropping by to buy cheese from a farmer and maybe even being asked to stay the night. One of my favorite things about hiking such a long distance is watching the forest change, and wondering about the history of how that land was used. Being a forester by training this is, of course, a topic of interest to me, but when I talk to other hikers about these things they often also get excited to look at a forest this way. It makes the experience more like reading a long book where you are asked to reflect and interpret the writing, as opposed to watching a movie where the imagining is done for you.

Once the trail reached the Green Mountains and joined up with the Long Trail, I felt the pleasant pangs of nostalgia as I remembered my first long hike that lead to me being on the AT now. The first time I hiked the Long Trail the summer after my freshman year of college I began to think differently about how I wanted to live and where I belonged in the world (for a poorly-written and entirely too in-depth reflection on that trip visit KarunaOutdoor.com) I’ve come a long way since then as far as outdoor and life experiences go but it still made me feel 19 again to be picked up by my mom in Rutland for dinner and a shower, the best part being that I got to see my beloved Brittany spaniel who almost joined me on this thru-hike.

My hike through southern Vermont was mostly about reflection. Being home made me think about if I still wanted the same things that I did the first time I hiked through that area. I haven’t exactly come up with any answers yet. My post-trail plan has been to move home and apply to grad school, but my love for this simple lifestyle of doing nothing but walking and having nothing but what you need has made me reconsider. A final decision on these things will have to wait until Georgia, though, I have a trail to hike.

I am now halfway through Massachusetts and after a visit to the most fabulous shelter on the AT at Upper Goose Pond, I’m taking a zero in a town that allows hikers to use the public gym for hot tubbing and sauna time. This town really gets me.

 

As always, happy trails.

 

-Shredder

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